THE BATH NOVEL AWARD 2014 WINNER: JOANNA BARNARD for PRECOCIOUS
The Bath Novel Award 2014 was won by Joanna Barnard from Farnham, Surrey with her unpublished first novel, Precocious.
Bath Novel Award 2014 judge and literary agent Juliet Mushens read Joanna’s manuscript in four hours sitting at her desk and knew she’d found a writer she wanted to represent.
Juliet went on to sell Joanna’s manuscript to Ebury Press in a four-publisher auction. Ebury published Precocious as a hardback original in July 2015, with a paperback to follow in January 2016.
As a schoolgirl, Precocious’s Fiona Palmer has an intense crush on Mr Morgan, her English teacher. She writes stories, poems and plays for him; he praises her talent and offers a glimpse of what life might have to offer beyond her council estate. The crush develops into a relationship which ends badly.
The novel opens with a chance meeting between the two fifteen years on. Morgan seems once again to offer a form of escape and they quickly begin an affair. A young woman visits Fiona, seeking her help in prosecuting Morgan who she claims abused her at school and Fiona finds she must re-visit her own version of the past.
Gillian Green, Ebury Fiction publishing director told The Bookseller: “Joanna’s debut is an utterly compelling, clever and controversial novel which the fiction team has become hooked by. It’s that Holy Grail in fiction: quality writing but with a commercial heart and a subject matter ripped straight from the headlines.”
INTERVIEW: JOANNA BARNARD on WINNING OUR AWARD, SIGNING WITH JULIET MUSHENS & LANDING A PUBLISHING DEAL
Congratulations, Joanna! Obviously we all loved Precocious, tell us what inspired you to write your manuscript?
Precocious began life almost twenty years ago as a short story about an affair between a schoolgirl and her English teacher. The story evolved into a novel when I realised Fiona, her main character, had much more to say.
What was it like finding out you’d won?
The build-up was so nerve-wracking. I kept refreshing the web page even though I knew it wouldn’t be announced until noon. When I read the other shortlistees’ first pages, I thought they were so strong that I just prepared myself for disappointment. So when I saw my name, I was genuinely taken aback. I think I cried ‘It’s me!’, burst into tears and then jumped up and down a lot.
Why do you think Precocious won?
I’m not sure, because from what I’ve seen the competition was very tough. I think it’s accessible and easy to read, without being lightweight; it’s a story that’s very current and has characters and emotions that lots of people can relate to.
Precocious began life as a short story, then turned into a novel. How long did the full length manuscript take?
The first draft probably took me a year. I work full-time and have a young son so I have to fit in writing when I can. There’s been one major re-draft since then and lots of little tweaks.
When and where do you write?
Whenever and wherever I can! I carry a notebook around with me all the time and capture little ideas, scraps of overheard conversations, observations about people and places. Then I sit down somewhere comfy – usually the sofa or in bed, and usually with a big cup of tea – and try to fashion a scene or a story out of all these pieces. I always write longhand, which is a pain as I then have to type everything up, but I just can’t seem to be as creative writing directly onto a laptop. Perhaps that will come with practice.
If you hadn’t sent us your novel manuscript, what would you have been doing now?
I was actually thinking about that today, when the contract for my book deal came through. Because when I entered, it felt like a last roll of the dice. I was actually thinking of giving up on sending the manuscript out to agents. I felt like I was at the end of getting rejections and after years of self-editing, I didn’t feel there was much more I could do with it. So I think I would either have self-published or put the manuscript away and moved on. I remember hesitating about entering, because it was January and I couldn’t really afford the entry fee. I’m so glad I did enter, because that decision changed my life.
Juliet (Mushens, Literary Agent and our 2014 Judge) told us she read your manuscript at her desk in four hours and immediately knew she wanted to represent you. How did she break the news to you?
Over coffee in Starbucks! I think I just stared at her with an inane grin on my face. It was very surreal.
What happened after you signed with Juliet?
Juliet gave me notes on my manuscript and some edits to work on. She also suggested a name change [Joanna entered Precocious as “Different”] and said that publishers often want to change a book’s title.
At first it was really hard to think of new names, after living with “Different” for so long, but I didn’t want to be precious about it. Juliet felt the original name didn’t give enough of a clue what the book is really about. That it might make the book sound a bit misery memoir-ish, when it’s not. She gave me a really good example from another book she represents which went from “Ada” to “The Dressmaker of Dachau” and after that I totally understood then why “Different” would not work.
Thinking of a new name was probably the hardest part of the whole editing process. We drew up a big list, about 30 names between us. Juliet’s assistant, Sarah, added some ideas, as did my writing group. We kept adding titles for about four weeks until in the end Juliet, I think, came up with “Precocious” and I could see how it worked for the book.
Then, when we met with prospective publishers, an editor asked us how wedded we were to the name and Juliet and I burst out laughing. But actually, Ebury really like “Precocious” and are sticking with that title.
How nerve-wracking was it when Juliet started sending Precocious out to prospective publishers?
We worked on edits for a couple of months until Juliet said she was happy it was ready to start sending out to publishers. She gave me the option of either hearing about passes as they came in, or to wait until she had good news. I decided I wanted to know everything. I’d dealt with so much agent rejection before entering the competition that I felt strongly I would rather know about any responses as they happened, so I could keep my hopes under control. But it was completely nerve-wracking, I had NO nails left.
Luckily it all started to happen really fast. Juliet had said we should expect it to take a couple of weeks for first responses, but she actually started to hear the very next day with almost daily phone updates. One of the nicest things about working with Juliet, is that whenever she called me I could hear the genuine excitement in her voice and feel how thrilled she was about each piece of good news. It was a really exciting time. Especially when Juliet rang to say it was going to be a four-way auction. That was such a great feeling.
What happened after it was decided the book would be going to auction?
The publishers asked to meet with us first. I had to do a lot of grovelling to my boss to get the day off, then Juliet and I went to meet them all in one crazy day of cab rides. I’d never so much as set foot in a publisher’s before and suddenly I was going to one after another and being given cups of tea while editors told how much they loved my book. It was brilliant.
The next day more offers started coming in. I think it’s called a round robin auction. Everyone put in a sealed bid then Juliet called the person with the lowest bid and invited them to beat the highest offer. The auction went to a couple of rounds. Everyone put in another bid and by the day after everyone had made their best and final offers. When Juliet phoned me and told me the amount of Ebury’s winning offer I slid off my chair onto the floor.
It’s a two book deal. What can you tell us about your next book?
It was such a great feeling, knowing that Ebury fought for my book and that, not only were they committed to getting it, they wanted a second book. I need to complete that by next December. It will have some similar themes to Precocious in that it focusses on family relationships, but this time there are four narrators who all have different versions of the same events. It’s still early days for book two. I’ve been mostly working on my final edits with Ebury.
Have Ebury asked for many editorial changes?
Working with Gillian (Green, publishing director at Ebury) has been a really exciting part of the process. Her suggestions are so sharp and make such sense. She has this way of making me see things I couldn’t see myself but straight away know are right.
Most of the changes she suggested were towards the end of the book. She helped me to see where I had rushed some of the plotting and that my pacing throughout the final third needed more work. She said she loved my writing, just wanted more of it and has asked me to add 15,000 words by Deecember. So I’ve had to do quite a bit of adding in, which is actually much easier for me than taking words away.
I’ve also realised I have a habit of thinking I have made a plot element clear, when it is only clear inside my head and unclear on the page. Or I might think I’ve been mysteriously intriguing, when actually I’m just being annoyingly vague.Working with an external editor is brilliant. Gillian makes me a better writer and has made Precocious into a much better book.”
Congratulations on quitting the day job!
I’m so excited to be able to dedicate myself to writing. It’s nerve-wracking and feels a little risky, but I told myself that in the unlikely event I got a good enough advance for my book, this is what I would do. I’m still working out my notice as a soft drinks sales and marketing manager, which means a lot of late nights to get my final edits finished by December.
What will you spend the £1,000 prize money on?
So far I’ve mostly spent it on prosecco and cake. I’ve also bought a book-related charm which, fittingly enough, says ‘Fairy Tale’ and will always remind me of the amazing experience of being part of this award. Next I need to do some practical things like buy Word for my MacBook – I’m trying to spend most of it in ways which are writing-related.
Lastly, any advice for 2015 entrants?
Do it! You’ve nothing to lose and the confidence boost, not to mention the potential opportunities that come from being longlisted, shortlisted or winning are well worth it. It’s been a brilliant experience from start to finish and it’s a great chance for unpublished novelists to get noticed.
2014 RUNNER UP INTERVIEW: IAN NETTLETON for THE LAST MIGRATION
Ian Nettleton left school at sixteen and worked in industrial advertising in Sheffield. During a spell of unemployment he began to study English Literature. He kept on studying, paying his way by working in industrial cleaning, in a book shop, as a care worker, as a teacher of English in Prague and in a county hall post room. In recent years Nettleton has become a teacher of creative writing.
The Last Migration is a literary thriller set in the Australian outback. “A well-crafted novel, using spare prose to evoke a powerful sense of place. The voice stuck in my mind long after I reached the end.” Juliet Mushens, Literary Agent and 2014 Judge.
Tell us about the inspiration for The Last Migration…
I dreamt a story about two brothers setting off across a desert to capture a man with a case of money. I’d been struggling with a novel about a couple whose marriage is falling apart as they travel in Australia, and adding these new characters suddenly breathed life into the story. Now I had a plot evolving – a psychopathic nightclub owner who values family, a gangster cousin who runs off with his takings, a failed, fatal attempt by the brothers to bring this cousin back home and a pursuit across the outback.
Congratulations on being our first runner up. Tell us about the build-up and finding out.
Thanks. Being in the longlist was the first surprise. I submitted my 5,000 words and forgot when the list was being announced so when I opened my email I shouted at the top of my voice. That was a great moment. Then came the waiting and another surprise with the shortlist. I thought to myself, longlist is good, shortlist is something you see on a book jacket. The novel has been described as being too hard boiled and dark by agents so finding I was runner-up was fantastic.
An agent is looking at it at the moment and it’s been shortlisted once again [Ian went on to be awarded runner up in The Bridport Prize 2014] though I can’t say more than that at the moment as the list is anonymous. I’m waiting to see what happens with the agent and if the second competition opens things up further. In all honesty I think The Last Migration is a hard sell, being a thriller as well as a ‘serious’ novel. It’s the kind of thing I love to read, but as a writer friend said to me, the industry is risk averse at the moment. Still, not a bad first three months.
The Last Migration is set in the Australian outback. Why there?
I travelled to Australia some time ago, and my original story idea needed a large landscape – a man is driving on a lonely road, pursued by something terrible which destroys every living thing in its path. I went back to Australia to do some research and by that time the story was changing and the desert landscape and the isolation of the outback mining town I visited – Broken Hill – had a big impact on me. It was perfect for a story about someone running and in fear of their life.
You began writing The Last Migration seven years ago. How has it evolved?
It began as a horror story. A friend told me he hit a dead deer in the Norfolk countryside, late one night. The impact left a lot of gore on his car and he couldn’t get rid of it from the underside. I thought, what would happen if a man was driving a car and hit an animal, but when he went back to look it had turned back into a man? And what if he realised, as he drove on, that more of these creatures were after him, following the scent on the car? From this came the idea of a larger landscape, and a husband and wife rowing in the car, and the idea that wherever they drive these terrible creatures follow them.
But I realised that I didn’t feel the horror element really worked for me, so I changed the plot. I had the car hit an ordinary man, not a monster. Then I changed it so that the car stops because there are dingoes on the road and the couple find a burnt-out car with corpses in it, as now happens in the novel. Then I had to work out what the story of the burnt-out car was. It was then I dreamt about two brothers who are sent to collect a man with a case of stolen money, and from there the story suddenly seemed to gain momentum. I understand that Ian McEwan started Atonement as a science fiction story. It goes to show how an idea can evolve.
Was it an easy decision to write dialogue without quotation marks?
Yes, it was a relief. I remember reading James Joyce’s Dubliners and enjoying the lack of speech marks. And Steinbeck leaves them out in places, while Cormac McCarthy and Mark McNay dispense with them – two writers I admire. You just have to make sure you don’t lose the reader. But the page looks much cleaner. It seemed to fit with the pared down style that I like. Less like a load of thunder flies had been caught in the pages.
When and where do you write?
In cafes, usually, and in bed just before sleep. I write longhand with a fountain pen in one of those Moleskine books. A small book so that I can fill the pages quickly. It makes me think I’ve written more than I have. Morale is always important in this game.
Do you have beta readers and how do you edit?
My wife and best friend read my material when I think I’m pretty much finished. I don’t usually give it anyone till then, though I’m getting better at handing out material for workshopping. But I did hand what I saw as the finished novel to Katy Carr who works at The Writers’ Centre in Norwich and she gave me some fantastic feedback on the plot as well as some excellent editorial advice. I spent last summer adding a good few thousand words because of her suggestions, adding more of the backstory.
Generally I do this: write in longhand, cut this down with strokes of the pen, type this up and make editorial choices at the same time, print it off, read through and edit in pen, type up, and so on. When I have a completed draft I read the whole thing through, noting inconsistencies and overwriting, then read it through again, and again, all the time rewriting and editing. That can take anything from three months upwards. I spent a year doing this with The Last Migration. When I can read it through without anything snagging, it’s time to give it someone else to read.
What are you currently writing?
I’ve spent the summer working on a new novel set in England in the late seventies. As with The Last Migration there is a thriller element, as well as a supernatural plotline. Some of the material is autobiographical, though the characters and plot are fictional.
New characters have come to life and new plotlines have emerged and there is no doubt that the award has given me more confidence and an increased motivation.
Best and worst parts about being a creative writing teacher?
The best thing is showing people how well they can write, while suggesting how they can improve. It’s a big privilege to be part of a writer’s progression. The worst part is marking. I put a lot of comments on students’ submissions, and when they are on the laptop I find myself sitting for far too long.
Which writers do you most admire?
Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx. I discovered John McGahern a few years ago. Every paragraph of his writing is beautifully phrased and full of intense honesty.
You first tweeted when people started following you after our results were announced. Are you a Twitter convert?
I didn’t think I’d like it but yes, it’s a lot of fun. I’m still not really sure what I’m doing. One of my first posts was with a link to a video on editing sentiment out of writing. I’d like to post more videos and other material like this.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering The Bath Novel Award?
If you have a novel ready, don’t send it in straight away unless you’ve read it through a good deal and have got someone else who you respect to read it through too. But do send it in. You can never be sure just how good your novel might be. I submitted to The Bath Novel Award after getting tired and despondent from all those rejection letters. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. The literary world can be a harsh place for a writer, as anyone who has sent work out to agents and publishers knows. In contrast to this you’ve been incredibly supportive and encouraging and a great champion.
2014 SHORTLISTEE: CATHERINE BARTER
Catherine Barter grew up in Stratford-on-Avon, and then lived in Norwich for ten years, where she worked in a library, did an American literature degree and wrote a PhD thesis about the author Sherman Alexie. Currently she co-manages an indie bookshop near King’s Cross. Most of her jobs have been book-related, although there was also a spell in the lingerie department at BHS. Barter’s short stories have appeared online, in Whiskey Paper and Bartleby Snopes. She began Corrina, Corrina five years ago and used The Bath Novel Award deadline as her motivator to finally finish it off.
What’s happened since your Corrina, Corrina was shortlisted?
“After having had my YA novel Corrina, Corrina kicking around for almost five years and several completely different drafts, making the shortlist was my first clue that it might, in fact, be finished, and ready to start sending out to agents. I would still probably have been tempted to spend another five years tinkering (it’s hard to let go), but Caroline Ambrose, the Bath Novel Award organiser, offered to send out an introductory email to a number of agents on my behalf. As a result of this, I received five or six requests for the full manuscript–totally thrilling in itself–and then two offers of representation. Both the agents I spoke to had really smart, insightful and honest things to say about my novel–on both its strengths and weaknesses, and its potential place in the market–and I’m thrilled to now be able to say that I’m going to be represented by Laura Williams at Peters Fraser & Dunlop, who was also the first agent to request the full. I’ve got quite a bit of editing still to do, but with an agent on board, it’s exciting to be looking at the novel with fresh eyes.
I work full time and it’s not always easy to find the time to write, but I’ve definitely got plenty of motivation right now, so I hope to get all the reworking done in the next few months. And I’ve got a collection of scenes and fragments for another novel accumulating in a folder on my laptop, so as soon as Corrina, Corrina (the title is going to be changed: it turns out to be very hard to spell consistently) is out of my hands, I know that I’ve got something else to turn my attention to. So it’s basically been a very exciting few months; entering the Bath Novel Award turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.” Read the first page of Corrina Corrina by Catherine Barter
2014 SHORTLISTEE Eugene Lambert grew up in Wolverhampton and describes himself as a refugee from the world of science and engineering, Lambert is a recent graduate of Bath Spa’s MA in Writing for Young People. When not scribbling away in his cabin, he flies gliders or goes for long walks. The Sign of One is a science fiction thriller for young adults which Lambert describes as a “twins are evil story… with a twist.” In an extraordinary real life twist, Lambert’s identical twin was also longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2014. Since being shortlisted, The Sign of One has sold to Egmont as the first in a trilogy deal for publication in 2016, Read the first page of The Sign of One by Eugene Lambert
Christopher Shevlin found he could bear to read few books when depressed. After a long period reading only his battered Jeeves Omnibus, he decided to write the book he wanted to read. A top literary agency signed him up but was unable to place The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax with a publisher. Shevlin decided to self-publish, selling a thousand copies in its first year, then a second thousand in just three months. Two years on, he has sold over 12,000 copies and is now writing a sequel, although worries he “may now be too happy to write so easily.” Read the first page of The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax by Christopher Shevlin
ALSO LONGLISTED for THE BATH NOVEL AWARD 2014:
Kirsten Alexander, Everything You Want
Aliya Ali-Afzal, Platform Six
Jenny Antell, Bad Habit
Brendan Boenhing, In Love with the Furies
Tara Isabella Burton, A Thief in the Night
Tara Isabella Burton, The Snake Eaters
Ulrika Campbell, Remember My Name
Clar Ni Chonghaille, Fractured
Martha Close, Extraordinary Chambers
Carol Cram, The Towers of Tuscany
AD Croucher, Altered
Sarah Day, The Door in the Dark
Shelley Day Sclater, The Confession of Stella Moon
Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown, x y z
Louise Hartley, Phoebe and the Wanderers
Ruth Lehrer, Duck Duck Farina
Amy Lord, The Disappeared
Doc Martin, Gob Squad
William Micklethwait, The Valley
Joanna Parry-Gokce, Bones
Joanna Pocock, The Great Tulsa Coin Toss
Tamara Rogers, Grind Spark
Joanne Sefton, The Girl the Tide Brought In
Fran Slater, Fierce Animals
Niall Slater,The Second Death of Daedalus Mole
Andrew Stevens, Wackjob
Sue Wallman, The Girl Next Door